Jim Henson was a man with drive. He wanted to tell stories, to make things, and to experiment. Henson, who left the world far too young, was acutely aware of how time marched onward. He wanted to create as much as possible while he could. This is one of the constant threads throughout the documentary Jim Henson Idea Man. The documentary highlights Henson’s visionary genius, boundless creative energy, and his family life. We talked with director Ron Howard about exploring Henson’s extensive body of work and what he hopes people take away from the documentary.

Nerdist: What Jim Henson creation did you first experience?

Ron Howard: Now that I understand his creative journey, it was the character Rowlf on Jimmy Dean’s show and those funny songs that they would do together. We have a couple of them in our film. I remember seeing that and thinking that that was funny. And then other things, maybe a couple of those commercials— the outrageous commercials that are so non-politically correct today, but I think that’s probably it.

He meant so much to my family. Here’s the thing about what he brought to Sesame Street, was that adults would want to sit and watch it with their kids. It wasn’t just park the kids in front [of the TV], it’s that you wanted to see those funny little films that Jim made. You’d want to see those characters interact. That was a gift that Jim had given our family as well.

The documentary includes those commercials, the Muppets, everything. He was such a creative force who spoke to many audiences. What were the challenges of covering the breadth of his career?

Howard: Well, he was a social satirist and he brought that to children’s programming in a way that was so refreshing. Again, it would attract adults, but it also reached kids in an important way. But when you look at those commercials, they’re all satire. The Muppets, it’s all satire. He was a witty, funny guy. When you look at his home movies, even those are a little bit satirical. They’re certainly whimsical. He knew how to use fantasy humor, use the puppets as a way to unleash the audience’s disbelief and then get to us about our foibles and the truth of our existence and the human experience in ways that really resonated.

A black and white picture of a young Jim Henson working on the Kermit the Frog puppet from the Jim Henson documentary Jim Henson Idea Man

And he seemed to bring such a sense of play and curiosity to everything he did.

Howard: Yes, he thought life should be fun. He thought people should be treated well. He believed all these things and yet was a wildly productive person. He didn’t have to be a jerk to get things done. He just had to say, “Hey, come join me in my sandbox.” And people were working around the clock. So I think there’s a lesson in leadership there in our film as well.

You can see how much people liked working with him—people like Frank Oz.

Howard: Frank Oz gave us one of our really foundational interviews because he was such a key collaborator, and eventually they became like brothers. Jim was like an older brother to him. But just talking about Frank Oz, you forget that he spent all those years working with Jim and still had this remarkable career with Yoda and as an A-list Hollywood director, it’s kind of mind blowing, but I think Jim infused that sense of possibility and the thrill of productivity in many of the people that he worked with.

I definitely walked away from the documentary itching to create something. What do you hope audiences to take away from it?

Howard: I hope they feel the way I did, which is I had this opportunity to explore Jim as a potential subject, and I immediately realized that I thought I knew something about Jim Henson, but only a fraction. What I knew were these characters and these shows and these moments that we could certainly celebrate. But I recognize that there was so much we didn’t know about that was emotionally poignant.

His personal story, his family story as a son and a brother, and then as a parent and a husband, but also this archive full of hilarious, irreverent material that he had created that we knew nothing about. Some of it was deemed successful, some of it was never seen, and some of it was thought of as a misfire. It didn’t matter. He was going to create, and he was just going to trust that and keep going. And he was really an unstoppable creative force. But I think you said it, he loved creativity. I mean, the result was something that he certainly cared about, but he was working creatively as a way of life, not necessarily as the job that had to be done.


I admire that he seemed to be fearless. Just that attitude of I’m going to try something and see what happens without letting my doubts get in the way.

Howard: He was an amazing risk-taker, and I think it’s just a reminder to us that we need them. We need to create environments where they can have an outlet and can be seen. But of course, the internet provides that for a lot of people today in a way. There’s still something very modern about what he and Jane did in their late teens and early twenties, which was use the new tech TV to do these little five minute short pieces, somehow get them on the air and begin to develop their voice. And if you think about it, that’s a very contemporary creative approach to finding your voice today.

I imagine putting together a documentary is not a linear path, especially as you learn new details. What was it like to find the through line of the documentary?

Howard: The family story was the surprise, in that there was a narrative through line, and both Jim and Jane, their love story is really the foundation for the Muppets and everything that we love. It couldn’t endure, ultimately, yet, they handled the disintegration of their romantic relationship in such a admirable, constructive way. It just says a lot about them as individuals. But because neither of them really liked being interviewed, that was the documentarian’s task, was to keep finding ways to understand their relationship as the foundation of this family and also this company and this output of work.

That kept evolving, and Jane’s voice actually found its way into a more central position in the film, something we always wanted, but it was very late in the process that she really became as important a character as she is. I’m really grateful for it. It was a matter of finding more photographs, a couple of little interview snippets that were meaningful, little things like that, an audio tape that showed up late in the game. That why when you’re making a documentary, the research never really can stop.


After people watch the documentary, what do you hope they go explore of Jim Henson’s work that they may not know about?

Howard: It depends on what delights them in watching the film. I really hope that people go back and watch those Muppet episodes because we have great jokes and great snippets, but those are half hour episodes. I had sort of forgotten how good they are and how relevant because as a satirist, he wasn’t just talking about the moment. He was talking about human beings and the way we think. And so all of these characters, Miss Piggy, all of them, they reflect the human experience in an incredibly revealing and entertaining way.

Then I hope that the people who want to do a little deeper dive go and look at some of Jim’s experimental films, go and look at some of the fantasy shows that he did that are not so well known, but can be found and are really worth watching, because he was relentless with his creativity, and it’s really all valid and all interesting.

Jim Henson Idea Man will premiere on Disney+ on May 31.